Into Thin Air

Arequipa, Peru

The flight from Lima south to Arequipa takes us over terrain that looks a lot like Utah: brown, dry, and crevassed. In just over an hour we go from sea level to almost 8,000 feet and we are conscious of the thinner air up here.

I am light-headed and Craig is having trouble getting a full breath. Climbing the one flight of stairs to our room on the second floor of our hotel takes some effort. And this is just the mid-point of our climb into the Andes mountains. We will get up to 15,000 feet.

Bring on the coca! Taken in the form of tea or chewed, it contains small amounts of cocaine, and lessens the effects of altitude sickness. The locals have been using coca for centuries and you know the saying: when in Rome … or in this case, when in the Andes … do as the Andeans do.

We are instantly smitten with Arequipa. Agog might be a better word. Surrounded by volcanos, set amid clear blue skies, full of colonial buildings constructed out of the local sillar stone (white volcanic rock), populated by friendly locals, and haunted by the ancient Incans, it is truly magnificent. Yet another UNESCO world heritage site.

The cathedral on the main plaza and the many other churches, convents and monasteries are so enormous as to defy our attempts at photographing them. Not that we don’t try!

A museum called the Sanctuarios Andinos contains the 500 year old remains of a young girl found by mountaineers atop one of the volcanos. Frozen in the ice, “Juanita” is perfectly preserved. She was killed by a blow to the head and left as a sacrifice for the mountains that Incas revered and considered gods.

Apu is the Quechua word used to describe the spirits of the mountains. Inti is their word for the sun, also worshiped as a god. How strange must the Roman Catholicism of the Spanish seemed to these people!

We take a two day trip out of Arequipa to the famed Colca Canyon, arguably the deepest on the planet – more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon – and home to the Andean condor. The environment is as bleak as we have seen and we wonder how the hardy people we see on the road and in the villages can possibly survive at this altitude.

Mostly we are at 12,000 ft but we go over a mountain pass that is 15,000. Carlos, our very talkative and informative guide, shows us how to use the coca leaves and introduces us to a liquid called Agua de Florida, made from a variety of herbals, that we pour on our palms, then make a mask over our noses with our hands and inhale deeply. He swears by it and maybe it does work. We feel fine, although taking just a few steps feels like walking underwater.

The mountainsides are dotted with herds of South American camelids: alpaca, llama, vicuna and guanaco. The latter two are wild; the alpaca and llama are domesticated, some being herded by little boys who look like they should be in school rather than shepherding animals.

Alpaca and vicuna are used for their wool and the many shops selling their products tempt us to fill our packs with sweaters and scarves.

Seeing the condors is apparently not a guarantee. Depends on the wind and the weather. We luck out. First one emerges from the bottom of the canyon and we are ecstatic, clicking away on our cameras, then another emerges and we cannot believe it as the two of them play on the thermals, soon there are four, then seven, we eventually count eleven. With a wing-span of three meters, they are the largest flying birds. Huge!!

The bus ride back to Arequipa is quiet as we are all tired. Carlos has ceased his constant giving of information, but is still talking … to the driver! We are awed by what we have seen and experienced. The deepest canyon, the largest bird, a harsh harsh environment, and colourful, friendly people. WOW!!!

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